"Is the audio on?" said Mrs. Claus, leaning closer to the webcam and tapping at the iPad screen. Mr. Claus, seated to her left in front of a backdrop of a fireplace with stockings they purchased off the internet for $10, added: "Hello! Is that Jesse or James who's speaking? I can't tell because your video isn't on."
This is Santa season 2020.
The Clauses, or rather Don White 79, and Mary Rogers, 73, are two of many actors who've traded in-person Santa visits this year for Zoom calls, offering families a safer alternative to the annual tradition as the United States grapples with a surge in Covid cases.
Although some Santas are suiting up behind plexiglass or waving to children from snow globe setups, virtual calls from the North Pole's famous pair are entertaining families with personalization and intimacy in spite of some technical difficulties, like the ones on the call with brothers Jesse and James. It's also a way for Santas to still earn a paycheck.
"We're expecting to triple or quadruple our income this season," said White from the couple's dining room "studio". "We went from not thinking we'd be busy at all this year to being busier than ever; we started earlier, before Thanksgiving, too. Parents are desperate to find entertainment and something for their kids to do."
Each year, White and Rogers, who met on Match.com 13 years ago, emerge dressed as the Clauses in Kansas City, Missouri, frequenting restaurants, museums, fundraisers and events, including the Kansas City Royals baseball team's holiday festival. Now, they're logging about four to six video calls an hour to kids and their families across the country, up to nine hours a day, on their website VisitFromtheClauses.com through Zoom. The price for a private chat ranges from $49 for 5 minutes to $69 for 10 minutes.
"We're busier because we're not spending time going to different places, getting dressed or setting up," Rogers said. "We just run back and forth from the bedroom to the dining room."
Rogers' son Josh -- the founder of Guru.help, a video call service that connects users with plumbers, handymen and other specialists -- runs VisitFromtheClauses.com at no charge.
"We usually see the back of a kid's head when they're on our lap, but now we can look into their eyes and know their interests, pets and who they are," said White, noting parents can send "talking points" to Santa through the site ahead of appointments (a feature offered by many remote Santa services this year). "You can see their eyes light up."
Some bigger companies such as Macy's and Sam's Club, which use Santa visits to increase foot traffic to stores, have pivoted to digital platforms this year, too. For the first time in 160 years, Santa is not at Macy's Herald Square store in New York City, a location that attracts more than 250,000 people to its Santaland experience each holiday season, according to a Macy's spokesperson. This year, Macy's Santaland at Home website lets people sign up to take selfies with Santa and play games. Sam's Club is offering free chat sessions with Santa for its paying members.
Cherry Hill Programs -- one of the largest providers of Santas in more than 700 shopping malls across the US and Canada -- is offering high-production Zoom calls with Santa via CreateHolidayMagic.com. CTO Graham McFarland said the company converted 25% of its headquarters in Marlton, New Jersey, into a studio with high-quality sound systems, green screens, changing rooms and break rooms for Santa. Elf assistants run the technology so "Santa can focus on preparing for the calls."
Before and after each Zoom session, an elaborate video plays to "virtually transport" kids to and from the North Pole. A $99 package includes the live Zoom call, a video recording of the meet and greet, a holiday box and other gifts.
"We've been very impressed with the demand so far," said McFarland, who projects tens of thousands of virtual Santa appointments will be booked through the site this year. "It's more than just a Zoom call. We think people will always want to visit Santa in person, but this is a very new way to offer different options."
At the same time, smaller companies focused solely on the remote Santa space have seemingly surfaced overnight. William Evelsizer -- CEO of Santa's Club, which works with a Santa placement agency to hire his staff -- quit his full-time job in July to launch the company. "I had the idea to do this years ago when I saw (my friend's) kids waiting in line to meet Santa at the mall for an hour. When they finally got to the front, (the elves) put up a sign that he was going to lunch. Everyone was devastated," he said. "I knew there had to be a better way."
With 2020's shift to remote-everything, Evelsizer felt the timing was right to launch Santa's Club. Now with about 60 employees, dozens of Santas -- who can earn up to $40 an hour -- a prominent presence in Google's search results, positive reviews on Facebook and its own video chat tool (not Zoom or Skype), the company is aiming to be an early leader in the space.
"I want to be the Coca-Cola brand of Santa virtual visits," Evelsizer said. "If we break even (financially) this year, we're doing good. It's about learning, refining and getting into a position to scale in the following weeks. We hope to partner with some brands in the future, too."
The Santa actor culture is a force in itself; some grow their bellies months ahead of time, invest in suits that cost an upward of $3,000 and go through extensive training, according to Evelsizer. Some of his Santas do magic tricks on calls, play songs on guitars and have heart-to-hearts with families going through tough times. Packages start at $49.99.
But many Santas, often senior citizens, aren't necessarily tech savvy. "Each Santa's technological savviness varies drastically," Evelsizer said. "We have some that are computer wizards and others that don't know the difference between a left click and right click on a computer mouse. Each Santa requires attention in different places to ensure they are comfortable navigating all aspects of a live or personalized recorded video session. There is also the lighting and framing aspect that has to be addressed."
Santa's Club intends to launch a "university" to teach its Santas how to better operate the technology next season. Many companies are betting on personalization, convenience and the absence of long iines to continue the remote Santa trend long after the pandemic ends.
"We were really nervous if we'd be able to handle the technology to become Zoomers," said White, or Mr. Claus. "The kids are used to using Zoom these days. We're the ones getting used to it. But it's working -- and I have a feeling people may even want to talk to Santa well past Christmas this year."
The video in the media player above was used in a previous report.